For young people navigating their way through school, it would be almost unimaginable to envision 1960’s era home economics. Back then, ‘home ec,’ as it was called was almost exclusively for girls and learning the skills that would make them ‘good homemakers.’ Boys, instead, took ‘shop, ’woodworking, auto mechanics, things that might better ‘prepare them to be good breadwinners.’
Today, home economics still exists but has evolved, said Pueblo East High School’s Janae Passalaqua. For one, it’s now an entire curriculum of culinary arts, light years from its predecessor. Passalaqua said the program focuses on “how to be a professional in the industry.” The industry, whether it is a five-star restaurant or finding a vocation as a dietician, is food and every aspect of the service it entails.
Just as ‘it’s no longer your father’s Oldsmobile,’ cooking has long moved away from the old days of ‘slinging hash,’ and into a science. “You want people with culinary arts (skills) instead of just cooking,” said Passalaqua of the four-year program.
The Pueblo East program is now in its fourteenth year and set to resume in just days. School starts again August 31st. Program Director Passalaqua, herself a Pueblo restaurateur, has been part of the program’s evolution. Freshmen, she said, start with almost zero knowledge of a modern kitchen and graduate with the foundation for college cooking programs or, in rare cases, a dream acceptance to a place like Boulder’s Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts, arguably one of the country’s premier cooking schools.
Passalaqua said her freshmen students enter the program with little to no knowledge of fine cooking, top restaurants or different foods. Kids have a very narrow pallet, she said. “They don’t know what they don’t know.” By the end of the program, the transformation for some of her young charges is breathtaking. They “end up being in love with culinary.”
At the program’s start, hamburgers qualify as the perfect meal. Then, the challenge begins. “They have to design the perfect hamburger…I pull away one ingredient. I make them think outside the box.” It doesn’t stop there. The course teaches things kids never expected or suspected. They learn everything, said Passalaqua, from how to make homemade ravioli to creating the perfect crème puff, right down to the Pâte à Choux (dough), is on their plate.
Today’s kitchen is more a laboratory. “You have to know ratios, percentages…how to cut a recipe in half,” said Passalaqua. “Some recipes are in European measurements (metric). You have to know that.” Her students learn the difference between liquid and dry measurements. Measuring in ‘pinches,’ ‘dashes,’ and ‘sprinkles,’ will not cut it in Passalaqua’s kitchen.
Recently, construction began on a new Pueblo East High School. The current one had had its day. In its new incarnation, said Passalaqua, students will be learning and working in a state of the art facility. “I tell people that I am going to have the best kitchen for teaching culinary arts,” a full commercial kitchen, she said.
Part of the course work includes running ‘The Golden Feather,’ the program’s own restaurant. “Once a week we are open for staff,” she said. From ‘soup-to-nuts,’ students run the show. They are hosts, wait staff and food preparers. They’re also problem solvers. To challenge the student team, Passalaqua has them deal with an ‘unsatisfied customer.’ No customer’s ‘complaint’ is allowed to remain unresolved. Remember, said Passalaqua, it’s hospitality.
The restaurant is not only a test for how students are progressing but also preparation for a statewide competition. “Two years ago,” said Passalaqua, the students were very good.” They had to prepare what she called ‘an exquisite menu,’ which included “an absolutely delicious bruschetta topped with figs, pine nuts and they used a reduction of balsamic vinegar that they had reduced and drizzled over the top.” A prize for her students who compete is dining at one of Denver’s top restaurants. Last year’s competition was cancelled because of COVID-19.
To make the experience as realistic as possible, her students not only do the work but also wear the uniform. Thanks to a $5,000 grant from the Rachel Ray Foundation, her students will be outfitted in new chef pants, jackets and the shoes that professionals wear in the kitchen.
One of the most immediate benefits of the program for students who take jobs at a fast food operation, said Passalaqua, is pay. “Burger King,” she said, “will give them a raise.” But the program’s focus is not so much money but exposure to the world of food and the industry that they might not have known even existed.
Pueblo East’s culinary program is one of two the school district runs. The other is at crosstown Central High School. The district allows all students, no matter which city school they attend, to participate in the program.